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February 16, 2014

Google admits data mining student emails in its free education apps

Jeff Gould:

When it introduced a new privacy policy designed to improve its ability to target users with ads based on data mining of their online activities, Google said the policy didn't apply to students using Google Apps for Education. But recent court filings by Google's lawyers in a California class action lawsuit against Gmail data mining tell a different story: Google now admits that it does data mine student emails for ad-targeting purposes outside of school, even when ad serving in school is turned off, and its controversial consumer privacy policy does apply to Google Apps for Education.

At our work has long focused on the risks of allowing targeted online advertising into schools. This issue has come to the fore as companies like Google and Microsoft have launched a worldwide race to introduce their web application suites into as many schools as possible. In this article we review the background of this debate and then present important new evidence regarding the practices of one of the leading players, Google.

The suites in question are known as Google Apps for Education and Office 365 Education, respectively, and they include basic apps such as email, word processing, spreadsheets, live document sharing, simple web forms and messaging. Their key selling point is that they offer students something almost as good as a traditional office suite in the convenient format of a browser window, and - best of all for cash-strapped schools - they do so at no cost.

Of course as the economist said there is no such thing as a free lunch, and we must look carefully at the business motives behind these firms' generosity. Here an important difference between the two leaders emerges. Both Google and Microsoft generate substantial revenues by selling online office suites to government and enterprises for annual subscription fees. If the firms offer essentially the same suites to schools for free, it is surely in part because they hope that when students move into the workplace they will demand the same online tools they learned to use in school. This is a business model that is honest about its intentions and serves the interests of both students and the firms. However, there is an additional component in the Google business model that involves advertising, and this is where the trouble begins.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at February 16, 2014 2:46 AM
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